“that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives”

In Chapter 2 of Moby-Dick, Ishmael alludes to the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” from the Gospel of Luke as a metaphor for the terrifically cold night in New Bedford, which his first night in the town.

c. 1035-1040

c. 1035-1040 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the biblical parable, Lazarus, a beggar, is exposed to only the evil and ill wills of life; he lives outside the gates of Dives, starving and full of sores. Dives is a selfish, spoiled man who wears only the finest of linens and feasts heartily everyday without a thought for the poor leper who resides outside his gates. Both Lazarus and Dives die; Lazarus is taken away to heaven, to an eternity of rest and peacefulness, while Dives is struck down to hell. Ishmael identifies Lazarus as stranded in the cold Euroclydon wind outside of the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford. He also speaks of Dives parading around in the cold wind in his fine, warm linens while Lazarus is using the curbside for a pillow and warming himself by the Northern Lights. “Now, that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives,” outside the door of the Spouter-Inn, on the one hand, might merely be meant to state hyperbolically how frightfully cold this night is. It is Ishmael’s good fortune to be able to venture inside.

On the other hand, the allusion might be more pointed than that. The reader will soon learn that setting foot in the Spouter-Inn does not bring Ishmael fully in the realm of Dives. The establishment is humble, and that is its charm. The real view of Dives comes in the full light of the following day, when poor Lazarus is nowhere to be seen. Rather the street is full of captains, cannibals, and greenhands, people of every ilk. Ishmael is impressed with the wealth of his new environs:

New Bedford is a queer place. Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling a condition as the coast of Labrador. As it is, parts of her back country are enough to frighten one, they look so bony. The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough: but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.

Here is the realm of Dives: a place that would be little more than a “howling” wilderness—barren, exposed, cold—if not for the industry and consequent wealth of whaling. So what befell that poor Lazarus Ishmael saw sleeping in these very streets the night previous that he does not or no longer partakes in the patrician lifestyle of New Bedford? Maybe he fell on hard times; maybe he has a mental and/or physical debilitation that prevents him from working; maybe he had a particularly long lay (the 777th maybe); maybe he no longer cares; maybe he never did. The point is this: the picturesque beauty and opulence of New Bedford, “harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea,” does not extend to every one of its citizens. Maybe this explains in part why Ishmael is intent on sailing from Nantucket, when there would be plenty of whaling voyages leaving from New Bedford. Maybe Nantucket has a more communally minded economy; it is an island unto itself, after all. Maybe it just hasn’t seen the division of wealth that has struck the more urban environment of New Bedford; or maybe Ishmael just doesn’t remark it there because of his romantic preoccupations. Where, where there is economy, (is this not the question posed by the Gospel of Luke?) does the rich man not have his Lazarus?

3 thoughts on ““that Lazarus should lie stranded there on the curbstone before the door of Dives”

  1. Thanks for the explanation. For one, I didn’t know if Ishmael was really seeing someone on the streets. If he was only thinking about how Lazarus from the Bible would have fared in these colder conditions.

    • Excellent point. The allusion is written in such a hallucinatory way that it’s hard to say what Ishmael is really seeing. I always imagined him seeing a person sleeping on the curb, who, rather than inspiring sympathy or concern, gets him rhapsodizing about old biblical lore.

  2. Dives is Latin for “(a/the) rich man.” it’s not a personal name.

    someone just pointed me to your site after i posted that marvelous quote on her page.

    what do you make of the “temperance society” bit? puritanism & disdain for pleasure?

    love your last sentence. & nice analysis.

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